The Secretary of State Who Created the American World
By James Chace
Simon & Schuster 512pp $30
Tired of the tawdry and petty issues that pass for news these days? James Chace offers an escape in his gracefully written new book, Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World. A professor at Bard College, editor of World Policy Journal, and author of five previous books on international affairs, Chace has written a biography of the late Dean G. Acheson that captures an era when the subjects of the day loomed serious and large, as did the leaders who tackled them. The New Deal, World War II, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Bretton Woods, General Douglas MacArthur, and the cold war combined to create the stage on which Acheson played a leading role.
Acheson served Harry S Truman as Secretary of State, but he counseled Presidents both before and after him. He wrote two memoirs himself. One of them, immodestly but aptly titled Present at the Creation, detailed his long stint in government and won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1970. As a result, it's hard for Chace to plow new ground. The author has the advantage of recently released Soviet and Chinese archives and some family letters and diaries, but mostly he benefits from the endlessly fascinating subject he chose.
The son of an Episcopal pastor who rose to become bishop of Connecticut, Acheson was born in 1893 in Middletown, Conn. With his father's "wild Ulster streak" and his mother's forceful character and theatrical nature, he often had run-ins with his strict father. "The penalty for falling out of a tree was to get hurt," Acheson once wrote. "The penalty for falling out with my father was apt to be the same thing." Despite his later success, the son felt he never won his father's approval.
Acheson's rebelliousness continued into his teenage years, despite the Groton School's attempt to snuff it out. Acheson finished last there in a class of 24. As one example of how that era was different, he still managed to get into Yale University (most of the class went to Harvard). In later years, he ruminated about British leaders, Hitler, and his old school: "Chamberlain doesn't understand what he's up against, but he would be a great success as a student at Groton. Churchill does understand it. He would be kicked out of Groton in a week."
After a summer working in the Canadian wilds to help build the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, Acheson entered college, where he was a witty bon vivant but an indifferent student. He provided a sharp contrast to classmate Archibald MacLeish, a scholar, athlete, and poet who later became Acheson's closest friend. At Yale, he coached crew with Averell Harriman, another lifelong friend and future diplomat.
Despite another mediocre academic record, Acheson was accepted at Harvard Law School, where he roomed with Cole Porter. Finally, something took. He finished fifth in his class and came under the wing of then-professor Felix Frankfurter, who suggested to Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis that he hire Acheson as a law clerk. Acheson stayed with Brandeis for two years and never left Washington.
At the court, Acheson was influenced by both Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Yet the two jurists had opposite world views. Brandeis thought there were verities that remained unchanged through the ages, while Holmes felt prevailing if temporary moral and political sentiments should set rules of government. Acheson tried to reconcile these viewpoints, evolving from a moral absolutist to a pragmatist.
His first short stint in government came in 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Acheson, a diligent campaign worker, Treasury Under Secretary. He was out of government by 1934, but his impact still was breathtaking. As a private citizen, he chaired a panel whose work led to the Administrative Procedures Act, which governs the way federal agencies operate. He helped find legal loopholes that allowed the U.S. to give Britain sorely needed military equipment. His advice to FDR on how to adjust his 1940 campaign strategy so impressed the President that it led to a State Dept. job: Assistant Secretary for Economic Affairs. In that role, Acheson attended the Bretton Woods Conference, which created the International Monetary Fund, and he helped draft the charter for the World Bank.
It was Acheson's relationship with Truman that was the highlight of his career. They were an odd couple, the debonair Easterner and the Midwestern ex-haberdasher. But Acheson admired Truman's decisiveness and honesty, and the President relied heavily on Acheson's wise counsel and unstinting loyalty.
Although often viewed as an intellectual bully, Acheson frequently changed his mind on critical issues. After World War II, he wanted Emperor Hirohito removed but later realized that he could be a stabilizing factor in Japan and should stay. Acheson also at first was anything but a rabid anticommunist and sought ways to reduce tension with Moscow by, for example, cooperating on control of atomic energy and weapons. It was only after Russia showed unacceptable designs on Turkey that Acheson took a harder line.
What Acheson cared most about was Europe: rebuilding and securing it after the war. He was not above invoking the specter of communism to persuade skeptical lawmakers to vote for money for the Marshall Plan. That tactic later came back to haunt him, as he and his State Dept. became targets of McCarthyism's anticommunist witch hunts. But overall, Acheson's strategies and the institutions he helped create provided decades of global peace and prosperity.
Acheson's broad experience led Presidents through Kennedy and Nixon to rely on him as an emissary or informal adviser. He could be abrasive and arrogant. But his judgment generally was impeccable. One hopes, but doubts, that we will see his like again.